Andie stared at the mess of keys spread over her desk, poking at the ones with labels still affixed to their rings and contemplating where to start. The powers that be had decided that this would be the day to categorize and dispose of any unneeded keys from the collection brought over from the old school in a battered metal lockbox that had once hung in the custodial office, and Andee had been saddled with the job.
“Quelle nightmare,” she muttered, quoting one of her favourite movies. “Where’s Tom Hanks to sweep me away from all of this when I need him?”
Sighing, she picked up the nearest set and began about searching the office records for any details about their origin and purpose. The frustrating part was that there were multiple storage cabinets, display cabinets, filing cabinets, and other lockable pieces that had been transported to the new building before the condemned school had been locked down. Maddeningly, the box containing the keys had not only been last catalogued sometime in 1985, it had also been soaked in water during a flood and many of the tags that remained were barely legible, if at all. A 6 might be a 5. A 3 might be an 8. The easiest thing to do, really, would be to simply replace the locks completely, but as a cost-saving move, it had been decided that first the office would search for as many workable keys as possible.
The office. Read: Andie Fraser, Office Manager.
If only there were someone else on staff who knew the secrets behind the collection, Andie thought. Too bad that the most likely candidates had long since retired and passed or moved away.
After the first few mysteries were solved, though, Andie found that she was actually starting to enjoy herself. It was intriguing, following the trails of paper files and computer records to identify and locate the home for each key, and rather satisfying to make and attach a new, clear, plastic-protected label for each. The new box for the new school was also in her workspace, leaning against a wall, and she carefully hung each processed key on a shiny new hook, even taking the trouble to sort the rows by floor and section with more labels. No more guesswork!
But as much as she was sort-of having fun, she had other tasks to complete, as well. So when she was around halfway done, she regretfully slid the remainder back into the plastic tub from whence they’d come, and patted them down into a neat layer while searching for where she’d put the lid.
One of the keys felt hot against her palm.
Andie looked again.
“Huh. Must’ve been lying against my coffee mug,” she said aloud. Curious, she went to touch the pile again, looking for the heated metal, but just then her phone rang. Sighing, she grabbed the lid which had been resting in the shadow of her computer monitor, clicked it into place, and picked up the handset.
* * *
“Day Two of the Never-Again Key Hunt!” Andie announced to her office-mates. “Anyone want to join me in this epic metal-fest? It’s like an Easter-Egg hunt, honestly!”
A few teachers chuckled appreciatively, but none took her up on her offer, not that she expected them to — she knew they were busy. Still, the enthusiasm she’d mustered during the previous afternoon had very much waned. She tackled the job with professionalism but fervently wished it were over at the same time.
The third set of keys she picked up this time were the hot ones. Andie knew it immediately, her brain recognizing the sensation of heated metal seconds before her consciousness registered it. She stared at her hand, wondering why she’d dropped the things back onto the desk.
“That’s impossible,” she murmured. “I don’t have anything remotely warm on my desk.”
Staring intently at the three old, worn keys on their anonymous fob, she poked at them with a pencil. They looked . . . perfectly ordinary, their round heads just scratched and tarnished, and their grooves polished nearly flat by time and repeated use. She flipped them over, using the pencil point, but neither side of the trio showed any clear serial numbers. Merely wrinkles that once might have been numbers, or names, perhaps. Maybe symbols of some kind.
“Looks almost like a fingerprint!” Andie decided. “Well, if you came from the old school, you have to belong here, somewhere.”
It took her the better part of the day, a reddened face, and knees made filthy from having to scour the filing cabinet’s darkest recesses to figure out that there were no records of the strange, warm keys ever having been in the school before.
“Damn you,” she told them, holding them in front of her face, quite accustomed by that point to their strange temperature. “I wish I knew where you’d come from!”
A blast of heat and tingly energy pushed her back in the filing room, knocking her onto her rear. When she recovered herself, three doors stood in the space between herself and the far row of filing cabinets, where nothing had existed five minutes earlier but dust motes and shadows.
Speechless, Andie got slowly to her feet, her body shaking. The keys were glowing in her hand. Glowing and sparkling.
“Wow,” she whispered, uncertain. “This — this can’t be real. I must have hit my head. Or I never even came to school today, I’m still at home, in bed, having a dream . . .”
While she spoke, a symbol seared itself on the first door to the right. She thought she recognized it as something from the Greek alphabet, and when the second and third symbols charred into appearance on the centre door, she decided that her memory was correct, and the symbols were letters, although she couldn’t remember what came after Alpha.
But no matching symbols appeared on the keys. There were no hints as to which went with which door, although one had taken on a purplish hue, the second glittered golden, and the third glowed a pulsing red, like a heartbeat.
Annie’s own heart sunk in her chest. “Aaaand this is when I leave . . .”
She turned on her heel and marched to the filing room door. It was locked behind her, and for a moment, she panicked. Then she recalled that it locked from the inside, so all she needed to do was push the little button on the doorknob to be released.
At first, the door wouldn’t budge at all. And then, with grunt and a split nail, the locking mechanism gave and the door opened, letting in a welcome breath of cool air. Andie practically leaped into the hallway, her lungs bursting, barely aware that she’d been holding her breath.
When she looked back into the room, the doors were gone.
So, readers — three doors, three keys, nine combinations. What would you do?